The UK is facing a long lasting mental and physical health legacy from the lockdowns imposed to contain the spread of COVID according to new research.
A team from the University of East Anglia (UEA) have released the results of a major research project which was launched juts days after the UK was placed into its first lockdown two years ago yesterday.
It monitored over 1,000 participants and the results point to a mental and physical health crisis which will last for many years, highlighting the socio-economic divide.
It found for those who were less well-off to start with, adapting to lockdown was more difficult, and health behaviours typically worsened to a greater extent.
In contrast, those who were better off at the start of the pandemic demonstrated faster adaptation and were more able to respond positively to restrictions, for example by taking to online exercise classes.
“It is likely that any lasting impact to mental and physical health will therefore be much greater for those who were worse off to start with,” it stated.
Prof Caitlin Notley, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “When the first lockdown was announced back in 2020, we started surveying participants from around the UK daily. Our initial results showed that people were eating less fruit and veg, getting less exercise and drinking more alcohol.
“It quickly became apparent that lockdown may have lasting consequences for the physical and mental health of the nation.
“We wanted to see whether people’s lifestyles changed in the long-term so we continued the study by carrying out regular surveys with the participants, and interviewing some people to find out more.”
Two years on, the team’s results show how health inequalities are likely to have widened.
Prof Notley added: “Social restrictions imposed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic have had a significant impact on health behaviours at the individual and population level.
“It’s fair to say that all of our participants’ lives were disrupted by lockdown and they were forced to adapt.
“But people responded to the lockdowns very differently and their experiences of social restrictions varied considerably.
“Fundamentally, people were hindered or helped by their existing support structures and resources, such as access to technology to engage with the outside world, or private outdoor space.
“Those people who had good friends, community links and who were already health conscious, were able to respond positively and better able to cope.
“They were able to adapt to the ‘new normal’, use technology to keep in touch with friends and relatives, order veg boxes, carry on with a healthy diet and take part in healthy pursuits in new and innovative ways such as online fitness classes or ‘doing Joe Wicks’.
“But lockdowns are very likely to have caused a sustained widening of social and health inequalities.
“Those who remained in work outside the home, or who were retired, were the least impacted overall. But those who were unemployed, younger, on a lower income, clinically unwell or told to fully shield were particularly impacted by strict restrictions.
“For these more vulnerable people, supportive social factors were taken away or severely restricted. Anxiety and depression worsened, and unhealthy behaviours like exercising less, drinking more alcohol, and eating a poor diet increased.
“As we work through the ‘roadmap to recovery’, emphasis needs to be placed on a collaborative, community-based approach, with a focus on what makes us well.
“Encouraging membership of community exercise groups, for example, may help those most impacted to engage again with healthy behaviours to keep them well. We also need to pay attention to how those who are less well-off responded more negatively to the policy of lockdown, so that lessons can be learnt for the future,” she added.